If we want to live and manage properties more sustainably – preserving natural systems and creating better environments for our horses and ourselves – we have to get smart with our resources.
In this Part Two, Mariette van den Berg explains the functional design principles and tools that permaculture provides, and which allow us to obtain sustainable yields in our horse properties. (Read Part 1 here).
The permaculture approach to earth, social and resource management is interdisciplinary. The aim of permaculture is to design sustainable human settlements that preserve and extend natural systems, may that be in an urban, rural, lifestyle or a productive farming context.
Understanding the fundamental principles that govern natural systems is the key to becoming more sustainable and is the start of applying permaculture.
Last month, we began the equine permaculture design series looking at natural systems. We discussed the permaculture philosophy of:
- Working with, rather than against nature;
- Using protracted and thoughtful observations, rather than protracted and thoughtless action;
- Looking at the multiple functions that exist in natural systems, rather than obtaining only one function/yield from them, and
- Allowing systems to demonstrate their own natural development.
When working with natural systems, it is essential that we think in terms of energy. Everything around us (organisms, populations or ecosystems) contains energy.
This energy may be stored or may leave the system; it can be transferred from one form to another, but it cannot disappear or be destroyed, nor can it be created (first law of thermodynamics).
In order to support more sustainable farming and lifestyle options, we should capture this energy before it leaves our property and think in terms of recycling.
Managing natural resources and surplus
The energies that come into our system and exist without the action of humankind are what we call natural resources. They also include all natural characteristics, such as magnetic, gravitational, and electrical properties and forces.
On earth, natural resources are sunlight, atmosphere, water, land (includes all minerals), along with all vegetation and animal life that naturally lives upon or within the identified characteristics and substances.
Natural resources are typically divided into biotic and abiotic resources.
Biotic resources are obtained form living and organic material (the biosphere), such as animals, grasslands and forests, and the materials that can be obtained form them (e.g. manure, hay and wood). Fossil fuels, such as coal and petroleum, are included in this category because they were formed from decayed organic matter.
Abiotic resources are those that come from non-living, non-organic material, such as land, water, air and heavy metals (gold, silver, iron, copper, etc).
While we can utilise these natural resources, we should take in consideration that other living components need to use some of these resources to keep themselves alive. The aim is to try and use the surplus – that which is over and above the needs of the natural system – this is what we can call our ‘yield’.
The way to obtain yield involves managing our resources conservatively because energy, like money, is much easier saved than generated.
Resource saving examples are recycing waste, composting, insulating against heat loss, etc. After that, we can work out ways to use these saved resources.
Managing resources by design
One of the main objectives of permaculture is to create functional designs that obtain this yield and provide a surplus of resources. Let’s look at what resources we may find and what categories they fall into, so we can plan ahead some strategies for use.
In the context of sustainability we typically categorise our resources in terms of renewable and non-renewable.
We know that renewable resources can be replenished naturally and are continuously available. Some of these (i.e. sunlight and water) are not noticeably affected by human consumption, but others take longer to recover and are, therefore, more susceptible to depletion and over-use.
Pastures are a good example of a renewable energy that is susceptible to over-use. They provide energy for our horses, but if we over-use them and don’t allow the plants and soil to recover, the energy won’t return in the same volume.
From the human use perspective, a resource is classified as renewable only if the rate of replenishment/recovery exceeds that of the rate of consumption.
Non-renewable resources are either slow to form or do not naturally form in the environment. In human terms, resources are non-renewable when their rate of consumption exceeds the rate of replenishment/recovery; a good example are fossil fuels.
Permaculture narrows down the resources into five categories, according to their ‘use-and-result’:
- Resources that increase by modest use: An example are fodder browse (trees or shrubs), which benefit from moderate browsing (pruning) by herbivores because the leaves/twigs that regrow are less woody and more nutritious. Left ungrazed, the browse becomes woody, unpalatable or grows too high.
- Resources unaffected by use: In theory, a well-managed ecosystem can be unaffected by use. In resource management, an example would be diverting a river for water irrigation because the water returns into the system at large.
- Resources that disappear or degrade if they are not used: Examples are unharvested hay crops or pasture. If you do not graze pastures or turn them into hay, the plants will lose their nutritional value.
- Resources reduced by use: Common examples of this are overfishing, harvesting old growth forests, and mining coal and oil. In an equine property context, an example would be losing your pastures and soil due to overstocking.
- Resources which pollute or destroy other resources if used: This typically refers to residual poisons in an ecosystem and run off. An example would be the contamination of water (i.e. dams, creeks) with excess fertiliser or killing dung beetles through the use of certain wormers.
Categories 1 and 3 are those most commonly produced in natural systems and rural living situations, and are the only sustainable basis of society.
Categories 4 and 5 result from urban and industrial development and, if not used to produce permanent beneficial changes to the ecosystem, become pollutants.
Therefore, we should aim to use categories 1 to 4 wisely, avoid as much as possible category 5 and regulate all uses to produce sustainable yield.
This is known and managing resources and, while it is commonly used by conservation bodies to manage fish and animal populations, there is no reason why we should not to apply the same principles in our own lives and our own properties.
Using the surplus (yield)
In permaculture, we want to make use of any surplus our natural systems provide.
A basic understanding of what is available and how we can best go about managing our resources on our properties will support better ecosystems and is key to becoming more sustainable at large.
Yield can happen naturally (intrinsic yield) or it can be created by the design. It is measured in different ways:
- Product yield: The sum of primary and derived products available from or surplus to the system. This can be our crops or pastures and, through some active management, composted manure.
- Energy yield: The sum of conserved, stored and generated energy surplus of the system. This relates to all forms of energies, such as capturing sunlight for powering an electric fence or harvesting hay (which is an energy reserve for the animals).
How successful we are in producing a surplus on our property really depends on our creativity and the inventions we devise to capture these resources.
We should also consider the costs of our yields in terms of energy and health. Product yield may create problems of pollution or soil loss and cost more than it can replace. A good example is when overgrazing or overstocking leads to compacted soils, and results in lower and lower yields each season.
As property managers, our role in managing resources is to store, direct, conserve and convert the resources that pass through the site into useful forms of energies that we can exist on.
The system yield of our design is the total sum of our strategies in terms of surplus energy usefully stored.
Strategies to obtain yield
There are many permaculture strategies that can create yields without costly inputs and they can be grouped in broad categories. Here are some examples:
- Restoring and creating soils.
- Diverting and recycling water that runs through the property.
- Selecting low-maintenance pasture plants.
- Supplying key nutrients through mulching and composting.
Spatial and Configurational:
- Using zone, sector and slope characteristics in design (this will be discussed next month in detail).
- Identifying and using patterns (e.g. land contours) to support irrigation and stacking functions.
- Increasing cycling frequency. For example, establishing an advanced rotational grazing plan (See the March issue of Horses and People Magazine).
- Using technology to rehabilitate the system (e.g. keyline plow to decrease compaction).
- Routing resources to next best use.
- Storing run-off water in tanks and dams.
- No-till or low-till cropping.
- Making harmonious connections between components and sub-systems
- Making choices as to where we place things or how we live.
Cycling and re-cycling
Cycles happen all around us and are any recurring event or phenomena. Nature does it on a continuous basis. Cycles are opportunities in time, and can be used to speed up recovery and support new yield.
Just think of your pastures. They grow and die off at the end of the growing season. They turn into mulch that decomposes and is consumed by soil organisms, which then turn it into humus-like material high in nutrients that feeds the next season’s plants with the help of symbiotic fungi and bacteria.
Another example of cycling is when your horse eats grass which turns into manure that is dropped on the ground, breaks down and returns to the soil to feed the next season’s plants.
To capture energy and produce more yields, we need to think in terms of ‘re’-cycling.
If we want to have year-round food (pasture and vegetation) for our horses, we need to help the system by supporting this cycling process.
We can accomplish this by returning waste (manure or, better still, composted manure) to the pastures to support soil development and nutrient cycling.
To maintain the production of our pastures, we need to manage our horses and time graze them using rotational cell grazing systems that allow you to move horses around and avoid overgrazing.
Besides thinking of cycles, we also should be aware of niches in our environment, as these are important components that can create various types of yield for us.
In the permaculture context, a niche refers to the way in which an organism fits into an ecological community or ecosystem.
Niche is a place to be, to fit in, find food, shelter and room to operate.
Thinking of our own lives and our horse properties in this way, we will see there are many niches within niches that you can benefit from.
For example, a tree is a universe in itself. A tree offers many specialty forage niches to birds, mammals and invertebrate species. These species are dynamic and appear or disappear during different seasons. A tree can offer shelter and shade to our horses or can serve as a windbreak. Trees could even be utilised as fodder for horses or provide food for your people!
When you start identifying and listing these niches, you enable better utilisation and greater diversity, hence more yield!
To live and manage our horse properties more sustainably, and create better environments for our horses and ourselves, we have to get smart with our resources. Permaculture provides us with tools and functional design principles that obtain yields using our resources conservatively.
While working with natural systems is the basis of permaculture, the profound difference between permaculture design and nature is that, in permaculture, we actively intervene to supply missing elements and to guide how the system develops.
The functions and yields we can create in a systems is theoretically unlimited, because we may not know all the ways to conserve and store energy, and any system we build can be improved. There is always room for another plant, another cycle, another arrangement or technique; our own creativity and efforts are an integral part of permaculture.
To download this article “Equine Permaculture Design: Part 2 Managing Resources” click here [wpdm_package id=52388 template=”link-template-button.php”]